Yes, Virginia, there really was a Florence Foster Jenkins. And her spirit is still alive and well in all of us, whether we dream of being singers or are totally tone-deaf. She was both of those but, oh, so much more.
And, that’s why Stephen Temperley’s brilliantly conceived and beautifully performed musical play, “Souvenir,” starring Judy Kaye and Donald Corren and currently playing at the Asolo Theatre, is so side-splittingly funny and heart-breakingly bittersweet that no one will want to miss it.
Born about the same time the Civil War was ending, Foster Jenkins entered the 20th century as a well-endowed, deep-pocketed club woman who enjoyed giving her money to charities and her questionable talents to her friends. She hired a pianist to accompany her in her musical endeavors and proceeded to give numerous ear-shattering recitals of operatic arias and lieder to the amusement and astonishment of what was, at first, a small group of friends but later morphed into sold-out Carnegie Hall audiences. In addition, there is a recording that is still in circulation, which has become a best-selling CD.
Foster Jenkins heard only the most beautiful singing — in her head — and thought the tears (of laughter) and stifled, choked coughs (of hysteria) coming from her listeners were positive paeans of praise to her “artistry.” Delusional? Not at all. Hers was a mind filled with hope and beauty. She loved great music and had the utmost respect for Mr. Mozart, Mr. Brahms and Mr. Verdi.
“Die Mainacht,” a great song by Brahms, was something of a mainstay in her, um, repertoire, and when it appeared on her program she added this quote under the title: “O singer, if thou canst not dream, leave this song unsung.”
Foster Jenkins may be superficially frou-frou, but beneath her matronly, fervent, upper-class exterior, there beats a heart so filled with music, love and the desire to please, one cannot help fall in love with her, especially in the body and voice of Judy Kaye, the great singing actress who received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of this role on Broadway. Kaye’s ability to sing out of tune and rhythm is so uncanny, I felt my mascara dripping from my eyes as I, by turns, laughed so loud and cried so unabashedly I thought they might remove me from the theater.
Donald Corren, as the talented but musically frustrated Cosme McMoon, is only slightly too mannered in his appearance, but his abilities as pianist, singer and actor are award-worthy in a performance that is biting, wrenching and hilarious.
Vivian Matalon’s direction is both uproarious and poignant, making this fine musical play nothing less than a jewel. It is theater and, yes, music at their finest, offering riotous entertainment and heart-wrenching nostalgia in a historical vignette that should be seen over and over and over again.